By Todd Wills
Special to the Corsicana Daily Sun
The Navarro Bulldogs take a deep pitching staff to the Region XIV Tournament, one loaded with sophomores and the Pitcher of the Year in the East Zone.
That's right-hander Lukas Schiraldi, who will start Navarro's second game in the double-elimination tournament on Sunday. Corsicana's own Gage Curry will start the Bulldogs' opening game against Galveston (32-23) at 5 p.m. Saturday at Angelina College in Lufkin.
That's the luxury that Navarro coach Whoa Dill has -- in a four-day tournament, he has four sophomore arms ready to go. He can save his pitcher with the best record in Schiraldi, who is 10-0, and start his top strikeout man, Gage Curry, who has a pretty nifty 8-2 record and the ability to bounce back and give the innings on Tuesday's final day of tournament. He has left-handers Chad Young and Zach Hobbs ready for the last two days.
The Bulldogs goal is to play four straight days at 5 p.m. and avoid the loser's bracket. The Region XIV championship game is a 5 p.m. Tuesday with a game if necessary to follow to decide the region's representative at the JUCO World Series later this month.
Navarro (39-15), which moved into the Top 10 in the recent NJCAA National Poll at No. 9, is trying to earn a trip to the JUCO World Series for the second time in three years. The Bulldogs won the school's first national title in baseball in 2011.
Navarro has the best team ERA in the region at 2.89, a half run better than Galveston, the No. 4 seed out of the South Zone with its 3.46 ERA.
Curry leads the Bulldogs with 70 strikeouts to give him a 2.31 ERA in 74 innings. Curry's goal is to give Navarro as much as he can for four days.
"I'm going to try to give my team the best chance to win," Curry said. "I'm going to try to throw strikes. Hopefully we'll get this first victory of the tournament under our belts and move on from there."
From there, it will be Schiraldi, who is second in the region with a 1.88 ERA. Young is 6-1 with a 2.32 ERA and would likely pitch Game 3 of tournament. Plus there's Hobbs and J.D. Hammer and Jack Moffitt and closer Blake Griffin.
Plus, you can't sleep on the Navarro offense. The Bulldogs are second in the region with a .313 team batting average. They have scored 337 runs, second to Blinn's 339.
Catcher John Clay Reeves was the East Zone Player of the Year, finishing the regular season with a .375 batting average. The middle infield has provided a big surprise offensively with second baseman Drake Roberts batting .350 with 38 RBIs and shortstop Mason Salazar batting .333 with 40 runs scored.
The Bulldogs also will be getting back All-American outfielder Kaleb Goodell, who has been nursing an injury the last few weeks.
"We've been really swinging the bats well lately," Dill said. "We're taking really good batting practice. Defensively, we've found our position guys with Grayson Lewis and Mason Salazar on the left side of the infield. We have the infield covered. I'm excited about the infield, offense and John Clay behind the plate."
The Bulldogs cruised through conference play, losing just five games. But Dill said he's not worried about his team being overconfident heading in as the only ranked team in the tournament.
He wants his players to be confident.
"These guys are going to play so hard that they're going to try and win this thing in four," Dill said. "Those sophomores that were here last year that were on the brink of a championship last year and losing 1-0, they're ready to go back.
"They want to go to Grand Junction," Dills said. "They want to be the second team in the last three years to go and even overall. They're doing whatever they can to get there and that's all they're talking about right now."